This is a great and valuable read for anyone, but as an author, researcher, and historian myself, I absolutely loved it. And I greatly appreciate all the hard, thoughtful, thorough, and fascinating work done by Firstbrook, even though I had to wince through a few gruesome (but very real) events. Wow, should we value the sacrifices of those early settlers of America!
As a documentary type of fellow, Firstbrook did his own out-of-the-way traveling to see just how much of the legendary and almost mythical John Smith’s story he could verify. You may well be surprised. I now have a much, much clearer view of the deservedly famous Captain Smith, as well as a broader understanding of Europe, England, and America in the late 16th and early 17th Centuries. This is no dry history. This is an amazing and entertaining story, told well, and well documented.
Though my own research leads me to believe the author fell down a minor notch on the Squanto kidnapping scenario (which is due mainly to Sir Ferdinando Gorges’ slightly faulty memory many years after the fact), I would require this book as reading in every high school.
I had never read anything but the standard fare on the good Captain, but the more I learned from Firstbrook, it seemed that both author and reader could not help but admire ~ and marvel at ~ a son of a tenant farmer who devised his own rigorous physical and intellectual self-training program, became a captain of cavalry fighting to save Europe from the Turks, who managed to continually either dodge or survive close calls with death, escaped from a cruel Turkish slave master, repeatedly saved the colony of Jamestown from extinction, and extricated himself from a number of “you’ve got to be kidding” episodes with pirates. There are those who have thought Smith’s memoir to be tales too fantastical, but Firstbrook gives it all a serious exam. It’s educational and downright entertaining.
Here is one of my favorite accounts, from a trip of exploration Smith led while in Jamestown, far up the Chesapeake Bay. One of the men was Nathanael Powell, who later left an eye-witness report. As Firstbrook writes, the men encountered members of the “fearsome Massawomeck tribe.”
Smith had to think quickly. With only six men well enough to fight, they were vastly outnumbered. His solution was as inventive as the multitude of glowing tapers he used to deceive the Turks… First he hid his eight sick men under a tarpaulin and took away their hats. These he placed on sticks that he wedged along the side of the shallop, to create the appearance of a larger crew. He then ordered the shallop to pursue the canoes, rather than retreat from them.
“Think quickly” was a skill Smith required often in life. Note that he pursued rather than retreated. But the best part comes next.
Smith followed the warriors into the shallows, then beckoned amiably for them to come over. It was the type of unexpected action that would have made Machiavelli proud.
He gave them each a bell and trading commenced. He ended up with a heap of meat and woven shields that would save their bacon later. However, the Massawomeck shields also caused another problem the next day. The Tockwogh, “sworn enemies of the Massawomeck,” saw the shields of their foes and challenged Smith. Once again thinking “on his feet” and “on his seat” (in the canoe!), he informed the Tockwogh that the shields were “spoils of war.” They were impressed by these obviously very brave strangers! This fortuitous encounter led, in turn, to what amounted to a valuable intelligence briefing by the Iroquoian Susquehannock, who possessed weapons of iron and brass from the French, as well as extensive knowledge of many other tribes and their languages, all of which would go into Smith’s notes and report.
The resourceful captain knew how to call up cunning bravado that worked in his favor and often saved lives. In years to come, he would demonstrate his intelligence as well as observational and mapping skills in his valuable reports of Virginia and New England. He truly saved Jamestown and his exploration and advertising of New England helped give us an English America. He correctly saw the New World as an open door to liberty and opportunity, even for the son of a tenant farmer.
Firstbrook states that Smith “always aspired to be a chivalric knight.” Look for more on Smith in this blog and in my Braving the New World. We indeed owe Captain John Smith our attention, appreciation, and admiration.